Jessee’s wife and daughter go missing, and after months of searching, Jessee encounters an artist named She, the only clue leading to their discovery.
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Patricia Yager Delagrange
Patricia Yager Delagrange
Jessee Bradford, a respected young veterinarian in Santa Barbara, California, comes home to find his wife Serena and baby daughter Sofia missing. Jessee fears they have been kidnapped or worse. The FBI investigators believe his wife, the only daughter of a wealthy philanthropist who never approved of their marriage, simply abandoned Jessee and took their child with no intention of returning.
After months of fruitless searching, Jessee relocates to his grandparents’ home in Iowa, where he takes over his grandpa’s veterinary practice. There he finds the family closeness he’s been missing and falls in love with a female equestrian Laura. When Jessee and Laura attend a gallery opening of an artist named She, the paintings remind Jessee of his wife Serena’s art work. Thus begins Jessee’s search to find She while his future with Laura teeters precariously on the edge until the truth about She is discovered.
“Hey, Bradford, aren’t you goin’ to class today? It’s too early in the semester to go skippin’ out, bro.”
My friend Brian was a joker and never left well enough alone. Every word out of his mouth blared loud enough for anyone walking through the quad in the middle of campus to hear.
I stopped dead in my Jordans and took a deep breath. My head was killing me, and Brian knew how to push my buttons. Why did he always act like my freaking mother?
“I’m cutting class today, Brian. Is that okay with you?”
“Another all-nighter, Bradford?” He cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West, and my head throbbed.
“Could you just take notes for me, and I’ll get ‘em later?” I hated English Lit, and Brian had taken notes for me before. I figured it was no big deal this time, either.
“Dude! No can do. I’ve gotta leave class early to see my advisor about changing my schedule around for soccer practice. You’ll have to take your own notes.” He paused, grabbed my shoulder. “You okay, bro? Your face is all red. Better get outta the sun.”
Curling my lip in a sneer, I shrugged off his hand, did a one-eighty, and headed for class. Guess it wouldn’t kill me to spend the next fifty minutes trying not to fall asleep at the back of the classroom.
The lecture hall, a huge domed room that held up to four hundred students, had a stage at the front and a podium equipped with a microphone, so those of us in the nose-bleed section could still hear the professor. It was my favorite spot–less chance I’d be called on to answer any question the teacher might have about the book I was supposed to be reading.
I’d just slumped down in my seat when someone whispered near my right shoulder. “Do you have a pen or pencil I can borrow?”
I turned and gazed straight into the biggest, bluest eyes I’d ever seen outside of those television commercials for dry-eye problems. Long, blonde hair draped over several books perched on her lap. Sun-bleached bangs hovered above eyebrows a shade darker than her hair. Her mouth curved into a smile and I held my breath, captivated by the gleam of her straight teeth.
She leaned closer. “I said, do you have an extra--”
“Yeah, sure.” I grabbed one of the pens I kept tucked in my shirt pocket and handed it to her.
“Thanks. I don’t know what happens to all the pens I buy every semester. They disappear into the netherworld or something.” She smiled again. “I’ll return it to you at the end of class.”
My heart hip-hopped, flipped, and dive-bombed into my stomach. She resembled the winning model I’d just seen on the front of that month’s Sports Illustrated magazine, captioned “The Top Ten Beach Beauties of California”.
“I’m Jessee Bradford. Nice to meet you.” Lame intro, but at least she’d know my name. My mouth clamped shut, and my throat felt sort of scratchy. I swear, it was as if I’d forgotten how to speak English.
“I’m Serena. I usually sit down in front, but I was so running late. I got totally stuck at the beach, painting the waves.”
A long, transparent purple skirt flowed over her knees where it met with tanned bare feet. She wore a toe ring, something I hadn’t seen since high school. It suited her somehow. Kinda went with the rest of her outfit, which wasn’t much. A sleeveless ribbed top exposed full breasts, dark perky nipples protruding beneath the thin cotton. I detected the faint scent of lavender and instinctively inhaled deeply. Intoxicating.
The professor began his lecture so I kept my mouth shut. He had a habit of calling on students who, in his words, thought of the classroom as a “social interactive venue”.
Serena took notes, scribbling away furiously. She looked up every few minutes, brows furrowed in intense concentration.
Me? I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t get her face out of my head. That smile. The way her expression changed when she said she’d been at the beach, painting the waves. She struck me as a free spirit, carefree, sort of a hippie.
The next forty-five minutes I spent staring at the professor like a zombie, trying my best to appear engrossed in whatever he was saying. But I nodded off every few minutes. Each time my head drooped toward my chest I’d pop back up to soldier-straight position and take a quick peek at Serena, just to make sure she hadn’t been an illusion.
My eyes fluttered open again when my notebook shifted. A hand splayed across the empty page.
“Hell-lo?” Serena dipped her head in front of my face. “Class is over. Not that you’d notice.”
I glanced around the room. Students clogged the exit doors. A hot blush crept up my neck and face. Great. I just made a super impression on this girl with my engaging conversation, coupled with my avid interest in our English Lit class.
“Sorry. I must have been thinking about something else,” I mumbled and headed toward the nearest exit. I felt a tug on the back of my shirt. Turning around, I came face-to-face with Serena’s enormous blue eyes.
A pen dangled from her fingertips in front of my chest. “Do you want to come to the beach with me? It’s another gorgeous Santa Barbara day.”
I took the pen from her slender fingers. I didn’t need to think twice about my answer. “Sure. I’m through for the day anyway.”
That was a bald-faced lie. Equine Physiology class started in ten minutes, but Brian took excellent notes. I didn’t need to worry.
We meandered across campus. She walked on the grass, feet mincing through the greenery like a wood nymph from a child’s storybook about fairies and princesses.
“So, Jessee Bradford, what do you do for fun?” She flitted around me like a dragonfly, her skirt billowing in the mild breeze.
I reached out and grasped her hand. “I loan pens to female students who don’t come prepared for class.”
She didn’t let go of my hand, and my heart thrummed. My cheeks burned and I dipped my head.
“You get embarrassed too easily, Jessee Bradford. But it just makes you more handsome. Are you shy?”
Her smile showed teeth so white they sparkled. I felt beyond embarrassed, but at the same time, I was mesmerized. My tongue morphed into a piece of sandpaper, scraping the insides of my mouth. I swallowed and looked up at the cirrus clouds edging toward the dormitory buildings on this side of campus, giving myself a few seconds to cool down.
“I do volunteer work in my spare time. Don’t have much opportunity for fun. I’m majoring in Veterinary Medicine.”
The breeze blew one long piece of perfectly straight blonde hair across her face. I reached out and tucked it behind her ear.
She slowed to a standstill and my fingers slipped through the end of the strand then rested on the curve of her waist.
“Volunteer work?” She laid her forearm on top of mine and squinted up at me, shadowing her eyes with her other hand.
“At the Santa Barbara Animal Shelter. They host a free spay and neuter clinic every other weekend.”
She twisted away and ran toward Skye beach. I followed her to the bottom of the cliff’s stairs and stopped to watch her skip to the edge of the water where the seaweed floated in and out with the swiftly encroaching tide. Skidding to a halt, she slipped when a wave splashed the bottom half of her skirt, and she reached out to grab my hand.
I took hold of her outstretched fingers and pulled her toward me to break her fall. She turned in my direction. Her full breasts grazed my cotton shirt, and she looked up and smiled.